Monday, June 18, 2007


I was introduced to Innocence Mission in 1989 by an acquaintance who had gone to high school with the band mates. Recorded during the year after they graduated, their eponymous debut is an astonishing collection of sophisticated songwriting and understated performance. It's a serious injustice that Innocence Mission are not better known, and that their first album is underestimated by their own fans.

The album is a well-inflected collection of songs that speak of faith, family, and the courage required to be an artist and an adult; it avoids the cliches that come easily to mind. The foursome work in what might be considered to be an early version of the chamber pop format, with an array of acoustic and electronic instruments, combining folk sensibilities with modern alternative experimentation. A country dance ballad about family dynamics is balanced by a synth-washed meditation on faith, and kept company by an indie rock slow-burner about the black sheep of a family. Occupying a place of privilege is 'You chase the light', with the most exotic story to tell, though it is still told in the lush but uncluttered vocabulary of pop, topped with Karen Peris's reedy mezzo voice. In three quarter time, the song shrugs away from an easy association with waltzes. The tone is quietly emotional and shimmering, like the story it tells.

'You chase the light' bears the interesting subtitle 'Honfleur, 1869' which is a lovely clue. Honfleur, being a coastal town in Normandy, France, is the home of early impressionist/plein air painter Eugene Boudin. One of Boudin's works, 'Bathers on the Beach at Trouville', completed in 1869, is likely the visual antecedent for 'You chase the light'. While the song doesn't mention Boudin by name, I presume it is told from the fictional point of view of his wife. This woman has realized that her husband has forsaken her - not for another woman, but for his painting, epitomized by the light that is quintessential to the impressionist school. She has lost him to the glittering seashore, where he puts his passion on the canvas, leaving her behind in domestic banality. She supports him, but knows it is not a closed circle.

This song is a remarkably shaded portrait of this woman. She is hurt, proud, ambivalent, feisty, ironic, wistful, determined; and, if it is possible to be subtly heroic, she pulls that off, too. 'You chase the light' is her Dear John speech. She will no longer compete with this ephemeral light he pursues with more ardor than he ever pursued her. Does this sound literary? There is both a literary tone and structure to the song; she sings the verses alone but the choruses consist of her and her husband both singing at once (all in Peris's voice) - hearing and responding to each other simultaneously. In this way we learn that the painter is not a two-dimensional enemy: the poor man doesn't grasp how he neglects his wife, and truly wants her to share his passion for the aesthetics of his art. He is unprepared for the confrontation, though he is not surprised by it. He truly believes he has enough love for his painting and his wife - he even equates them. He is gentle and stutters his way through his defense. And he is hurt, pleading, bewildered by the realization that he doesn't really know her life at all.

It's always her song, though; hers is the melody, and his is a mumbled counter melody, and, more emphatically, she has the last word each time, a terse sentence that stops the exchange and even the song for a moment.

The crux is the second chorus, when she proposes the fundamental irony of the situation: Go paint the ladies on the beach / in crinolines and parasols / and shade their beautiful faces / from the sunlight you love so well / Oh I think that's funny. Meanwhile, he is protesting, They mean nothing to me / They are part of the scenery / I don't know why you go on like this / I love you more - I love you more / Oh, I don't think that's funny. And her coup de grace is spoken more than sung as she repeats, 'I think it's funny,' which is neither amused nor amusing, but bitter and sad, and to which he attempts no response.

Then the song winds down, quietly ending in an unresolved chord, as she tells him, You are a free moth / Go chase the light / and leave me something... We are left to wonder what that might be, and if she even knows.

Every facet of this song supports the themes: the beauty and escape of light dappled on water; the undramatic resentment that has built only to resignation; the moment of release when she shows both her insight and her strength, surely to his surprise. To my mind this is barely pop music. Its agenda is not to distract for four minutes, but to transform the listener, the way the reader is transformed by Kate Chopin's The Awakening, or Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Innocence Mission official website